Why T-SPLOST Failed: A Marketing Blunder
Atlanta, notorious throughout the United States for its traffic congestion, is part of a 10-county economic development region that last week ruthlessly shot down T-SPLOST, a 1% sales tax that would go toward a slew of transportation enhancements.
Throughout the suburbs, where distrust of Atlanta's use of tax-payer money is the strongest, residents were utterly unpersuaded that tax dollars weren't going down the drain.
Well, for anyone who did look, we hope you learned this lesson: a good idea is never enough. It deserves great communication; and great communication is precisely what the Untie Atlanta campaign did not have.
Today we don't want to focus on the politics—whether or not T-SPLOST was the right idea. We want to focus on how the campaign could have more effectively overcome or worked around the distrust of their audience—particularly those in the suburban areas—by leveraging some time-honored presentation techniques, notably those implemented by the famous designer Saul Bass.
Let's take a closer look at what went wrong.
The Rationale for Solutions Was Not Explained
Some predicted that the master list of projects proposed in T-SPLOST was going to have a positive impact on the voting results. Each region would have a pretty thorough list of what their dollars would be going toward, which should be reassuring, right?
Anyone who has ever pitched their business knows that a problem and a solution is never enough to make a good presentation. There's a key piece in the middle where you explain why the solution you are presenting is the best among many. T-SPLOST's specificity only raised more questions.
Why widen that road instead of this one? Why not build a new road over here? Why build that rail? Without any presented rationale, citizens were left guessing.
No matter how spectacular your solution may seem, assuming people will know or trust your rationale is a terrible mistake. This problem was compounded for Atlanta, where many of the people behind the list of projects were not considered traffic experts. This made it easier to conclude that the list might have more elements of personal interest than it should have or that the people in charge simply didn't have a rationale for why certain projects would help. Ultimately, a severe skepticism developed concerning the quality of the solutions.
Foreseeable Objections Went Unaddressed
When you've clearly explained the rationale for your solutions, it's important to go ahead and cut people off at the pass. Think of the big, top-of-mind items your audience is likely to consider that contradict your proposition, and then combat them before they have time to dig in.
For T-SPLOST, the most obvious concern was that the money would be wasted. Fortunately, in addition to the master list (which did leave room for ambiguity in interpretation), the state planned to create citizen accountability panels in each region to monitor how the funds would be spent. Furthermore, the project lists themselves were created with the consultation of regional representatives and through a number of public hearings.
These were good ideas; however, they weren't communicated well. A $6 million marketing campaign was created to raise awareness, but unfortunately little, if any, of this was invested in the website or other prominent means of combating objections. Key information—such as that related to the above watchdog panel—is buried deep in places the average voter is unlikely to go digging. For example, the first place I found counterpoints to some of these objections was halfway through this five minute video by the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network, a video which itself is buried far down on the T-SPLOST home page beneath numerous other links, content, and even another video.
Local residents were also concerned that the tax would continue after the allocated 10 year timeline—that there would be delays in drawing it to a close as there have been in removing the Georgia 400 toll (a hot topic the campaign surely anticipated).
The campaign should have preempted these objections by highlighting the fact that yes, some projects are taking longer to wrap up, but that overall from 2001-2010, of 39 states studied, the Georgia DOT was #1 at staying within budget and #2 at staying on schedule; but you won't find those facts on the T-SPLOST website or in the T-SPLOST marketing campaigns.
You'll find them in this not-much-discussed study.
Important Details Weren't Highlighted
Sometimes—most of the time—people have a hard time envisioning how something is going to actually work. It sounds great, but how can I be sure this is a good decision? In a similar vein, famous designer Charles Eames once said, "The details are not the details. They make the design."
There were two very important details that many people overlooked and that should have been shouted from the rooftops by the marketing folks:
- The fed was going to match T-SPLOST raised funds for the region upwards of 500-700 million dollars.
- Regions that didn't pass T-SPLOST have to match a higher % of state funds to local transportation projects in the future—30% instead of 10%.
Neither of these details stand alone as the sole reason to vote for T-SPLOST, but they are important details that could make the difference between someone being skeptical and confident about voting YES.
What Should Have Happened
So, lots of things obviously went wrong, and hindsight is 20/20; but would have worked better?
Pretty much the opposite.
In 1969, one of the most famous graphic designers of all time, Saul Bass, pitched telecom giant Bell on a new brand identity. The resulting brand makeover is one of the largest in history to this day. The video (also embedded below) of Bass's presentation made it's way around our office recently, and it's striking how well structured the pitch is. The general format follows something like this:
- Set the context for the project in the wider world
- Introduce the goal and what you're trying to accomplish
- Explain the rationale and how you got to the solution
- Reveal the solution and preempt objections
- Go into important details that might be overlooked
- Close with a future looking statement
As you've guessed by now, the Untie Atlanta campaign misses on most of the important marks here. The goal was definitely clear, and the context was set in a wider world, but after that, the train pretty much derails.
This should be a clear takeaway for the city of Atlanta, for other cities, and for anyone in business trying to pitch their ideas. Hopefully this mini case study in failure and Saul Bass's example of success can be a reminder in how to approach getting big projects approved.
If you've got the time, I'd highly recommend a sit down with some coffee to watch the Saul Bass presentation:
If you have some ideas or techniques you use to pitch your ideas and projects, share them in the comments below. Thanks for reading!